7 Epiphany C—2/24/19
Genesis 45:3-11,15; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; Luke 6:27-38
Pr. Scott Kramer
Today my wife and I have been married 29 years. I am grateful for my wife. I love my wife. And I think she loves me, too! So, I confess I am not happy about the gospel reading assigned for today: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.”
I love my family, and not just in times of joy and celebration. One of the lasting memories from my dad’s last week of life was a week and a half ago on Valentine’s Day. I had the great privilege of leading my family in the Commendation of the Dying from 1500 miles away. On that Valentine’s Day we all gathered, via Facetime, to give thanks to God for Dad’s life and to bless his journey into the next life.
This connection—this love—that my family shares, whether in joy or in sorrow, is something I treasure.
This doesn’t match the experience of family life for everyone. Joseph was second youngest of ten half-brothers and one full brother and a sister, and the favorite of his father Jacob. He was not shy about flaunting that favor. The famous “coat of many colors” that his father gave him was evidence. His jealous and resentful brothers wanted to kill him. They eventually decided not to murder Joseph but to sell him into slavery.
You can ponder your own family experience and decide whether your family is more like the relationships I’ve described in my own family, or whether your experience is more like Joseph’s, filled with disappointment, heartbreak, hostility, and maybe abuse. It is interesting, isn’t it, that this family story about Joseph is paired today with this teaching of Jesus:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.
Well, Joseph does just that. He forgives his brothers and reconciles with them. We have among us in this congregation stories of family reconciliation and forgiveness that are at least that good. The story of Joseph is a wonderful story, but we dare not make too much of it. After all, in this story Joseph holds all the cards—very unlike people who suffer from abuse in their families, who have little or no power. Joseph is the second most powerful guy in the Egyptian empire. He possesses the power of life and death over his brothers, and therefore has the luxury of choosing to grant them forgiveness.
It’s important to name that because when Jesus says to pray for those who abuse and to “turn the other cheek,” he’s certainly not saying that we should ignore abuse. Those who experience abuse in the family—whether physical, sexual, verbal, psychological or emotional—have permanent scars and face a lifetime of healing. They don’t need you or me telling them to ignore the harm or “just move on.” Justice and accountability are needed.
That said, we can say about today’s readings that they are about loving enemies, and the enemy might share the same name or live under the same roof. When pondering who our enemies are, family is a good place to start!
And yet, it would be easy to focus on the family, and make that the standard for Christian faith. I, for instance, surveying my admittedly imperfect family, might nevertheless feel a sense of self-satisfaction that we love each other and are doing pretty well. Jesus is quick to respond:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”
We had a snarky saying when I was a kid; maybe you know it. In response to bragging about some good deed that was really no big deal we’d say, “Do you want a medal, or a chest to pin it on?”—which is not far from what Jesus says to the crowd of disciples who gather to hear him: Do you love your family? Do you love those who love you? Big deal!
Well, maybe he didn’t quite say, “Big deal.” Parents loving children, children loving parents—it can be hard work and it is essential! But here’s the thing: Loving those who are like us, or, who like us, doesn’t make us special. It certainly doesn’t make us Christian. What does make us Christian is calling upon the power of God to help us do what we can’t do– and maybe don’t even want to do–on our own. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. I don’t know about you, but a lot of the time that’s sure more than I want to do!
This past week at text study one of my pastor friends told us about an unusual pulpit exchange she’s doing. What’s unusual about it is that she’s Christian and her colleague is Buddhist! In preparation for this exchange they’ve met to plan, and in getting to know one another my pastor friend disclosed how she’s having difficulty with particular people in her life. Her Buddhist friend replied, “How wonderful!” My friend replied, “How is that wonderful?!” And he responded, “I make a practice each day of praying that someone will come into my life who makes me uncomfortable.”
Now, whether Christian, Buddhist, or any other persuasion, we might call such a person a “saint” (or maybe “crazy”!). In reality, however, this deeply wise Buddhist explains how this prayer has practical value: If I pray for someone uncomfortable to come into my life, I won’t be surprised when they do!
Right? Because, whether or not I invite someone irritating or annoying into my life, I am almost certain each day to experience someone irritating, if not threatening, to cross my path. (And I will surely be that person crossing the paths of others!) Rather than wasting endless energy in resentment or avoidance, what if I were instead to say, “Thank you, God. Here is an opportunity for me, in some small way, to begin practicing obedience to Jesus’ command to love our enemies.”
After all,“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”
A good place to practice loving enemies—a good place to start–is at home.
The thing about the practice of love is that it’s not a box to check off: “Oh, I get along with everyone!” No, the life of faith is the lifelong experience of God stretching our definitions of love beyond what we think is possible, and often by stretching our definitions of family beyond what we imagine or desire. Your family and my family are the same: It is the kin-dom of God–not blood relatives, that are the highest good. It’s all people everywhere! Until our love extends to all, there will always be an “enemy” somewhere. That sounds to me like the work of a lifetime—and probably beyond!
There’s an extra grace note here: For those whose family life has been unhappy or abusive, the Christian definition of family offers hope for a new beginning. We–not your own flesh and blood–are your family! Or, at least a glimpse of that expansive kin-dom and a place to practice Godly love.
Any act of love, mercy, compassion, gentleness or kindness that we extend to others is nothing more than a tiny glimpse of the expansive, immeasurable love of God extended first, and unconditionally, to each and every one of us. In such love we become Christ…for the sake of the world God loves!